Sometime around the winter of 2003, I convinced myself that Queens of the Stone Age played really intelligent radio rock. In many ways, I thought, 2002’s breakthrough Songs for the Deaf was post-post-aware: Its preoccupation with mocking the conventions of modern rock radio’s nü-clones (which frankly, were only several degrees of separation removed from Queens, anyway) resulted in something beyond ironic. Even as its skits simultaneously excused, fingered, and apologized for the sardonic quality imbuing the disc’s at-once-sludging-and-caterwauling-but-often-not-particularly-remarkable riffs and vocal swagger, there was a thrilling and implicitly tongue-in-cheek quality that appealed to fans who, like me, didn’t listen to much rock in the first place.
For me, anyway, the prospect of stoner rock was just too thrillingly dumb to ignore. I remember wondering whether they were shitting me or not: “Sure, getting absolutely-fuckin’-hammered and playing some good-ol’-fuckin’ rock ‘n’ roll can be a novelty, but this is album is so goddamn premeditated!”
So fast-forward three years. With Lullabies to Paralyze, their fourth album, hard-partying bassist Olivieri is out of the band. Guest-drummer Dave Grohl—who on Songs gave his best percussive performance since, well, ever—is nowhere to be seen. Ex-Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan still lingers, if barely. But most noticeable is the gaping, glaring and—I didn’t believe it either—truly unfortunate absence of gimmick.
Where Homme’s 2004 Eagles of Death Metal side-project reveled in kitsch, Lullabies finds Homme and his supporting asking—for the first time—to be taken at face value. “Where, oh where have you been my love?” begs the gravel-voiced Lanegan in “This Lullaby,” a somber, minute-long dirgette. With its sparse instrumentation—just some rusty acoustic and Homme’s spectral whispers—it’s oddly atmospheric and entirely unexpected.
“Medication” continues with the same spazz-thrash bombast as Songs for the Deaf opener “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar But I Feel Like a Millionaire”, which was sung by Olivieri. As much Olivieri’s driven, throbbing basswork glued together much of Queens’ work, the bearded musician’s rednecked intensity foiled Homme’s aloofness, and his presence is missed for the first time here. For the bulk of the album, Homme rounds out the band with veteran Queen, erstwhile A Perfect Circle-member, and multi-instrumentalist Troy Van Leeuwen, as well as Danzig drummer Joey Castillo and Olivieri-replacement Alain Johannes.
Lullabies’ first half is disappointingly sludging. As usual, the riffs alternative between huge and haunting, but there’s something—maybe it’s Grohl’s drum stomp or Olivieri’s charisma—sorely missing. In “Everybody Knows That You’re Insane”, Homme follows Van Leeuwen’s slinking lap steel lead as he asks, “You wanna know why you feel so hollow?” with uncharacteristic boredom. “Because you are,” he bluntly concludes, and by the second verse the tempo has doubled for dramatic effect and Homme’s vocals are enveloped in static and distortion. Without Songs’ players, the song seems entirely formulaic—unfortunately, it also leaves the sinking feeling that three years ago, it might’ve worked just fine.
Even if the characteristic humor is gone, the album hits more than it misses—but it’s fairly bottom-heavy, leaving much stoner drone in the way of the eventual goods. In first single “Little Sister”, a muted cowbell thump is largely unremarkable until its final third—a minute-long solo that is at once directionless and exponential in its accumulation of tension.
But the disc’s best moment is “You’ve Got a Killer Scene There, Man…”, a sprawling, hand-clapping delta-blues stomp featuring “sultry” vocal contributions from Distillers frontwoman and ex-Mrs. Tim-Armstrong Brody Dalle and Garbage’s Shirley Manson. Interspersed between writhing guitar meditations and Homme’s own dive-inhabiting observations, a bayou of choir guides the song refrain. “Just witches and scabs, an awful mess” he sings. “I confess… let’s do it again.”
Even beneath its ironic exterior, Songs for the Deaf triumphed because at its core, it was nothing more than a handful of musicians playing good rock music and never giving a shit, even when trying harder than they purported—moments like “No One Know”‘s orchestral build or “Mosquito Song”‘s chamber ensemble flourishes were far to deliberately crafted. Lullabies to Paralyze is less consistant than its predecessor, and is at times painfully boring (and frankly, could use a good dose of gimmickry), but for fans, it should offer sufficient treats for those willing to brave its meanderings. And I’ll get fuckin’ wasted to that.
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